The right man for the job

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It was inevitable. Those were the words coming out of the mouth of anyone who had paid any attention to the Nationals season in 2015. Even though Matt Williams had just come off of 96 wins and the manager of the year award, does a lost clubhouse, a team struggling to stay above .500 and an imploding bullpen really beckon for the skipper to come back? Mike Rizzo and the Nationals ownership acted swiftly, after the ship known as the season hurdled towards the dock, torn, battered and nearly destroyed, but in one piece. One piece didn’t matter to them – is it smart to keep the captain of the ship who nearly sinks the vessel? On October 5th, the day after the regular season ended with a 1-0 loss to the NL Champion New York Mets, the Nationals fired manager Matt Williams and his entire staff.

After the initial celebration among the Nationals fan base, and the remorse among the rest of the NL East, the first question on everyone’s mind was screamed from the rooftops; who will be the next manager?

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Papelbon and Harper: It’s Tenth Grade again

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It’s a rarity, certainly, when I talk about my own life, or even in the first person on this blog. I’d like to think that I’ve avoided that well enough, as its considered good form, and that I set a personal rule for myself, that I should speak in the third person as much as I can, and avoid my own personal stories as much as I can. Here, I’ll break that rule.

This Sunday, nearly one year to the date of Jordan Zimmermann’s no hitter, Jonathan Papelbon, Bryce Harper, and the Nationals gained nationwide media attention, for all the wrong reasons. After Bryce Harper supposedly didn’t run out a fly ball, which he did, Jonathan Papelbon yelled at Harper for a lack of hustle. This is already problematic for a myriad of reasons – not only is Harper the obvious choice for MVP this season, which means that he doesn’t necessarily need to run out every fly ball, he does anyways (Jeff Passan wrote an excellent article about this here). Harper had also already played 150-plus games this season, and was starting a game that many regulars were sitting out, the day after the Nationals played a 4 hour marathon which, despite a win, was the last game they played that had playoff implications. The Nationals had been mathematically eliminated, and yet, there was Harper, playing again. Another blatant issue was Papelbon’s inconsistency. Papelbon had been passable, but certainly not shutdown. The next inning he went onto the field, he blew any shot the Nationals had at coming back, turning a 4-4 tie into a 6-4 deficit, plus putting on three runners for entering pitcher Sammy Solis. And is it truly a pitcher’s place to tell a position player when to hustle, when they spend the majority of the game on the bench or in the bullpen if they’re not starting?

Harper, for obvious reasons, was agitated. One thing led to another, and soon enough, after Papelbon told Harper he would go to physical lengths, Jonathan Papelbon had his hands around Bryce Harper’s neck. Bryce Harper turned on him, and began to fight back. He was restrained by teammates, retreated to the clubhouse, and didn’t return for the rest of the homestand, saying something along the lines of “I’m f***ing done!” to Manager Matt Williams. The Nationals might’ve been mathematically eliminated the night before, but the season truly died that afternoon in the dugout.

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Certainly Not Perfect, But It’ll Do

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Despite being considered among the most powerful cities in the world, and certainly the most powerful politically, when it comes to sports, DC has long been considered a city filled with lovable losers. Something is certainly shifting, as the Capitals and Wizards have both advanced to the second round of their respective playoffs, and the Redskins are finally showing sense in the front office. Logic would suggest that these positive experiences should be rubbing off on the Nationals, right? Well, not exactly, but for the most part, yes.  Continue reading

Looking at the lineup (48 days in advance)

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The Nationals haven’t had a lack of hype surrounding their last two seasons. The magazines were filled with predictions of parades on the National Mall, banners on South Capitol Street and a Curly W in the books for the last game of the season. We all know the rest of the story –  two seasons, one regular season disappointment, one 18-inning heartbreak.

Despite the incorrect predictions, there are still two large and legitimate reasons that in the past two year’s baseball previews, in big, bold letters, under the “World Series Champions” label, the words “Washington Nationals” have appeared more often than nearly any other. One is their talented rotation, which analysts like me and those on MLB Network could babble on about for hours. The other is the depth of their lineup, the “Red Line”. The Nationals possess what many would call the most dangerous lineup from 1-8, with offensive weapons at every stop.

Given the changes in the lineup made over the offseason, the lineup has the possibility to be different. It’s hard to believe Matt Williams and Mike Rizzo would mess too much with last year’s success excepting an injury.

Last year, the Nationals lineup eventually stacked up like this:

1. Denard Span, CF

2. Anthony Rendon, 2B/3B

3. Jayson Werth, RF

4. Adam LaRoche, 1B

5. Ian Desmond, SS

6. Bryce Harper, LF

7. Wilson Ramos, C

8. Asdrubal Cabrera/Danny Espinosa/Kevin Frandsen, 2B

9. Pitcher

Despite early season woes, this lineup took the Nationals to an NL East Championship. The majority of the players remain – all but two. Even so, Ryan Zimmerman will move to 1B but it does give Matt Williams a couple options on how he wants to shape his lineup. Here’s (barring any trades or injuries) the official Side of Natitude prediction. Continue reading

The End of The Line

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Down Half Street lies the Navy Yard Metro Station. Board a train 81 days from April to October and the train will be packed with fans dressed in red, white and blue, bearing the names of Strasburg and Harper. Ride it for long enough, and you’ll eventually reach Branch Avenue, the final stop on the line before turning around and starting all over. Only one team out of thirty is lucky enough to be the team that can happily leave the train before Branch Avenue, the stop known as the World Series. The Nationals were not that team this year.

The train that looked to be going the perfect speed, to for the first time, finish ahead of everyone else, couldn’t. On Wednesday, October 7th, the San Francisco Giants eliminated the Washington Nationals from postseason contention. The Nationals managed a meager 9 runs in four games, and lost the series in four games after being heavily favored to advance to the next round.

Maybe you should blame the loss on Tanner Roark giving up the home run in the eighteenth inning to Brandon Belt in Game Two. Maybe you should blame Gio Gonzalez for giving up two runs in four innings, or Aaron Barrett for throwing the wild pitch that created the winning run. Maybe you should blame Matt Williams for not taking Barrett out of the game soon enough. But excepting the two youngest and brightest stars on the team, the blame rests on the offense.

The Nationals offense all year long thrived on the ability of the tag-team combo of Denard Span and Anthony Rendon to get on base, and then for Adam Laroche, Jayson Werth, Ian Desmond, Bryce Harper or Wilson Ramos to drive them in. All of them hit higher than .258 in the regular season. In the Postseason, Adam LaRoche hit .056 and Desmond had the highest average in the top seven spots excepting Harper and Rendon at .167. Harper and Rendon combined to bat .331. However, even when Harper and Rendon got on base, nobody drove them home, as the Nationals lost one-run game after one-run game.

While the pitching wasn’t as superb as it had been in the months leading up, giving up 2.25 runs a game should be a recipe for success. However, the bats completely died in the five day break between Jordan Zimmermann’s no-hitter and Game one of the NLDS. While Harper and Rendon showed incredibly promising signs, the rest of the team continued to go quietly each and every time, letting hanging breaking balls fall in for a strike, swinging at balls in the dirt and popping up consistently. While Game 3 showed momentum changing, the Nationals simply couldn’t ride Bryce Harper alone to the next round. Errors they hadn’t made all year proved costly the one time it truly mattered. And instead of something escapable to run away from, the World Series station passed, and Branch Avenue became a reality with Ramos’ groundout to end the game.

And so the train turned around and went back. Half Street was just a blur in an underground tunnel. The signs proclaiming that the Nationals had reached the postseason had quietly disappeared. The government offices were no longer red, and back to their normal states. And even on a day where the temperature was warm and the sun was out, the chills of winter were blowing, not to stop for a long, long time. The train pulled into the airport, and the team left, all going their separate ways. And for the train itself? It will sit underground for the winter and avoid the cold. And one morning in April, it will pull out of the station, starting another journey.

Two Years Later, The Strasburg Decision Holds Stronger Than Ever

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One thing that the Major League Baseball advertising department would like you to believe would be that you can’t predict baseball. And while that’s been a slogan for many a campaign, it’s a mainly false statement. Baseball, for the most part, is a very predictable game. The best hitters only make something happen one third of the time. And there are only so many possible outcomes for every situation. Groundout, flyout, strikeout or hit. But the times where you see something amazing, crazy or just odd, are the times where the phrase comes to your mind. Maybe it’s an unassisted triple play. Maybe it’s when the pitcher hits a home run, or when catcher legs out a bases-clearing triple. However, the one thing you can never consistently predict is how successful a player will be next year, next month, week or even game. So when Stephen Strasburg was controversially shut down as an effect of his previous Tommy John Surgery in 2012, right before the Nationals were poised to make a deep run into October, and right after he had a career year, the baseball world was unhappy. People questioned if he’d ever have a year this good again. People wondered if it was the right decision for him mentally and physically. Everybody from government officials to columnists to football players weighed in. The verdict typically seemed to be to let him pitch. Mike Rizzo stuck to his plan. Two years later, on the brink of another postseason, how does that decision look now? Continue reading

Side of Interviews: Dave Jageler

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On June 21st, I had the pleasure of sitting down and interviewing Dave Jageler. You might know him from the Nationals radio broadcasts on 106.7 The Fan or player interviews at occasions such as NatsFest. He had a lot of interesting things to say and knows lots about the Nats, and is also a pretty funny guy. So without any further ado… Continue reading